After dialysis against 10 mM-Tris-acetate (pH 8.5), vimentin that has been purified in the presence of urea is present in the form of tetrameric 2 to 3 nm X 48 nm rods known as protofilaments. These building blocks in turn polymerize into intermediate filaments (10 to 12 nm diameter) when they are dialyzed against a solution of physiological ionic strength and pH. By varying the ionic conditions under which polymerization takes place, we have identified two classes of assembly intermediates whose structures provide clues as to how an intermediate filament may be constructed. The structure of the first class, seen when assembly takes place at 10 to 20 mM-salt at pH 8.5, strongly suggests that one of the initial steps of filament assembly is the association of protofilaments into pairs with a half-unit axial stagger. Increasing the ionic strength of the assembly buffer leads to the emergence of short, full-width intermediate filaments at approximately 50 mM-salt at pH 8.5. In the presence of additional protofilaments, these short filaments elongate to many micrometers when the ionic strength and pH are further adjusted to physiological levels. The electron microscope images of the assembly intermediates suggest that vimentin-containing intermediate filaments are made up of eight protofilaments, assembled such that there is an approximately 22 nm axial stagger between neighboring protofilaments. We propose that this half-unit staggering of protofilaments is a fundamental feature of intermediate filament structure and assembly, and that it could account for the 20 to 22 nm axial repeat seen in all intermediate filaments examined so far.